A long, dreary wait as Harvest Hope feeds the hungry

Hundreds of people endured Friday's all-around miserable weather to stand in line at Harvest Hope Food Bank.

As rain started falling before 9 a.m., cars were backed up along Shop Road and families poured into the regional food bank to ask for groceries and pet food.

It's just one more sign of the times and the state's troubled economy. On Friday, the state's unemployment rate hit a record 12.3 percent.

"People would not have waited in line in this cold, wet weather if they were not in need," said Maggie Knowles, director of the emergency food pantry.

Harvest Hope expects to serve about 700 families a day between now and Christmas at its two Midlands pantries.

Also, Pet Soup, a service offered every other Friday by Project Pet at Harvest Hope, gave dog and cat food to more than 700 people by 10 a.m. Friday, said Tracy Johnson, who runs the program. On Friday, a mobile pet clinic was on site to provide low-cost vaccinations.

Efrem Dawkins of Columbia stood under a tent in Harvest Hope's back parking lot to get rabies shots for two puppies. He held one shivering puppy while its sister got a shot.

Dawkins' dog recently had nine puppies, and he has found homes for five. He is searching for a home for the remaining four puppies. It's hard to make ends meet on a limited income, he said. His family has been living on one income since Dawkins lost his job earlier this year.

"I don't want to be cruel to the animals," he said. "Everybody is struggling."

Outside Harvest Hope's main building, hundreds of people huddled under three tents set up in the parking lot.

Inside, food bank workers and volunteers hustled to fill out paperwork and load shopping carts.

C.J. Tinder of Columbia started volunteering at Harvest Hope two years ago, after she retired from the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice. She decided to volunteer at the emergency food pantry because she identifies with the clients. She struggled for years after leaving home at 17.

"I know what it feels like to be without and to not know what to do," she said. "You never lose that feeling of being hungry and not being able to pay the light bill."

While Tinder said she can steel herself from most sad stories, she recently was touched by a mother and daughter who came to Harvest Hope for help just before Thanksgiving.

The mother had been laid off from work and had never been to a food pantry.

While filling out paperwork, the mother asked Tinder if she knew where they could sign up for Christmas presents for the little girl. The mother started crying, and it was clear the daughter was frightened, Tinder said.

Tinder patted the woman's hand.

The daughter did the same.

"The little girl ... the fear that came over her face. She said, 'Mommy, it's going to be OK,'" Tinder said. "I could cry now just thinking about it."